Growing up, there were two places we'd go for vacation every year.
Either a week at my Aunt and Uncle's beach house in Cape May, or a long weekend in Room #10 at the Kismet Motel, run by my grand-aunt in Wildwood, New Jersey.
3rd street, in the middle of nowhere.
Or 6th and Surf, just blocks from the Boardwalk.
Wildwood had the rides going for it.
The Spooky Shack and Gold Rush were my favourites when very young - a haunted house and a Wild West themed indoor roller-coaster. Afterwards quarter-powered light guns would make cans fly on steel wires, lamps tip back, and an animatronic piano player belt out some ragtime if you hit the right bullseye.
There were dollar games of chance where you all but guaranteed to lose your attempt to win the big stuffed animal. Automatic BB guns with the site off and just not enough ammo to completely shoot out that paper star. Basketball games with the hoops barely big enough for the balls to fit through, and positioned at a height and depth awkward to anyone who ever practised on a real court. Bushel bins you lobbed softballs into, but were angled just right so they always bounced back out. And so on.
They were known to pay insiders to walk up and down the boardwalk with those animals, pointing anyone who asked where they won it to their stand.
Curley's Fries on Morey Pier. Always and still the best boardwalk french fries anywhere in the world.
In later years, after "loop rides" were fair game there was nothing to top the Sea Serpent. Pulling you backward up the incline, never certain quite when it would finally release you, hands in the air, then freefall down, up, over, around and over again then through a third loop before the wheels locked into grooves, starting up another incline, slowly ticking up track by track before releasing you to do it all over again. This time backwards.
Seventeen times in a row on a ticketless wrist band one weekend before labour day, when the boardwalk would close for the winter. Best seat was in the back. You started the highest on the first downward fall. Falling backward didn't pull on your gut the same.
Thinking about it now, the perfect rollercoaster.
But Cape May was still the best.
Wildwood was fun to go.
Cape May was fun to stay.
There were guys walking the beach with coolers on the backs or freezers on wheels. You could recline in your beach chair on lay on a towel spread over the hot sand and they'd come right up and sell you a Chocolate Chipwich. If you were unlucky, there were only Vanilla left.
Up at the Snack Bar were beach fries to drown in ketchup. The trick was to wash sand off your hands and keep them clean so you didn't get any in the food.
Seagulls would dive and fight for any leftovers.
Someone would get buried every year.
We'd usually argue over who it got to be.
Coloured buckets filled with sand and saltwater were for drippy castles.
Dip your hand in and grab a fistful. Pull it out before it got too wet and runny. Let blotches drip from between your fingers as you hold it over the walls or towers, the sand drying into pebbles when they hit.
Dig a mote until you hit water.
Afterward, the house had an outdoor shower.
That was cool.
We'd call first dibs on the way back from the beach.
The wood was green and kind of slimy under our feet and you didn't want to touch anything you didn't have to - you might get splinters and who know what that black stuff was growing on the walls.
The water was impossible to get right, always too hot or not nearly enough.
But it'd feel so good washing off all that sand. Feeling fresh after a day in the sun. Waking up after the drowsy heat. Tea Cooler from Swiss Farms waiting with ice cubes. First one to play Kaboom! on the Atari.
Most nights we'd eat in.
Tomato "gravy" over homemade pasta noodles.
There were old, rusty bicycles in the shed out back.
My favourite was the three-speed. Kind of blue and tarnished aluminium. Skinny tires. My bike at home did curb jumps better but it was only one-speed.
The dirt road would end after a couple houses if you turned left out of the driveway. Just gave way to trees. They hadn't built that part yet.
Second street went all the way to the 7-11, what seemed like kid-miles away. From there you were halfway to the beach but we weren't allowed to go that far until later.
We could still get Slushys on our own. And Bubble Tape. And Caramellos. Whichamacallits. Bonkers.
What made Cape May special was the sense of the place. Like stepping back into the past. Seeing what the world was like before you were born.
Famous for its Victorian architecture, it carried an aristocratic air.
The jewel of the Jersey Shore.
The clear, wave-worn stones on the beach called Cape May Diamonds.
For us kids, this special place, the Beach House, carried implications we responded to but were never really aware of.
Going away mean packing a bag. We couldn't bring all our stuff, just a weeks' worth. Only the best things, the small ones, the most important.
Always a book or two. There'd be nothing but time to fill.
Travel games for the car. Connect Four and Checkers.
A favourite toy. Something new to play with that summer.
The Wicker Shop was the only other store around reachable without crossing a major road.
We almost never bought anything there.
But loved to explore.
Filled furniture and decorations - all of it border by, covered with, or made entirely from wickercraft. The isles were strange and wonderful to wander.
Nothing was very expensive, to a kid maybe but not in the grand sense. All of it meant for decorating vacation homes. Providing a rustic yet tasteful look while helping to fill that empty corner of the room.
The intricate patterns, weaving criss-crossing back and forth, the smell in the air like autumn leaves and straw.
It was part of the nightly ritual, after dinner but before dark, my sister and my older cousin, sipping frozen drinks through straws shaped like spoons, on our way back to the house.
Once per trip we'd eat out.
Usually the Pilot House.
"They do good burgers."
We'd walk the outdoor mall after.
Hit the Fudge Kitchen, the one with free samples outside and whole boxes of orange salt-water taffy.
The antique store had a suit of armour outside.
The kite store sold "Rangs" boomerangs and Aerobies that could loft through air three backyards away, and further in an open field.
The sunglass shop had a camel painted on its sign.
I can still taste the caramel corn.
Evenings we'd venture out to the concrete promenade along the sand, depositing our saved-up allowances one quarter at a time into video games in the arcade and earning tickets to exchange for useless junk by playing skeeball and slot machines.
Spyhunter had the best theme music but Paperboy had those awesome handlebars. Rastan could be re-played for hours and nothing beat that flame sword that shot fireballs.
50 was really hard to get, and if you missed, only ended up with ten. Better go for the 30 and if you miss take the twenty.
Cherry on the first reel means your money back and another spin. Two and you were rolling. Impossible to get three BARs. A plastic cup filled with green and gold plastic tokens.
At the end of the week, what it had all been leading up to.
By the time I was twelve we stopped staying in Wildwood altogether. My grand-aunt was on in years and the upkeep too hard for her. I doubt the Kismet still exists - a ten-room motel is hard to turn a profit.
Around the same time Cape May ended too.
My uncle, for whom charismatic was the ultimate understatement, passed away. Heart attack, jogging. Suddenly. Young.
A shock to the whole family. I don't think we ever went back to the beach house after that, and it was quickly sold.
We would continue visiting the Jersey shore every summer for the next few years, though now in Ocean City, the suburbia-by-the-sea.
There was a boardwalk there too, and while it did have rides and arcades, it was nothing like Wildwood. None of these looked dangerous - or fun. Stuff for kids.
A dry town.
I first came to New Zealand just a month after 9/11, when sympathy for America was at its height, and if the dot-com boom was already past its high-water mark, the realization hadn't hit the general public.
We were in the right, and strong.
By 2003 as I was on my way to becoming firmly established "down under and to the right" and seeking residency.
The world had changed.
America had some explaining to do.
War was being declared in Iraq, and the perspective from foreign soil was in sharp contract to news feeds from domestic media. It started off an unpopular war everywhere but in the United States.
I was travelling at the time, in transit back to NZ, taking advantage of a layover in Fiji (easy to arrange for just an extra fifty bucks). It gave me a unique opportunity to talk to people from all over the world, during a moment of international controversy and consequence.
I asked them what they thought about America, and about the war.
Over bowls of kava, upstairs at the Suva farmer's market, I had a long conversation with the owner of one of the stands, and his family who were constantly coming and going. He shared the same perspective as a lot of the other Fijians. Might meant right. America was powerful, and needed to use that power to strike at its enemies. He spoke well of the country and its declared intentions.
Europeans were quite the opposite. Many couldn't understand our arrogance and failed to make the distinction between the choices of a government versus the personal convictions of individuals.
It wasn't an easy time to travel as an American. Strangers were less welcoming than they might have been after catching the accent. I found myself having to defend my country's reputation.
Most frequently I had to explain a worldview which focused primarily and dangerously inward, as though the rest of the world simply didn't exist.
Over time I came back with my answer.
In the United States, having one week's vacation per year is not uncommon. If you had been at your job for some time, you might have earned two. Three was nearly unheard of.
"You must be a teacher, right?"
Five business days. Perhaps ten "days off" total, but that might include sick days.
New Zealand at the time had a legal minimum of 15 business days per year (recently raised to 20), for any job, for every person. That didn't include public holidays, and often sick days would be given in addition. In Europe four weeks was common, and in some countries, six.
This shapes the way people travel.
The pressures of the workplace and daily routine are difficult to escape. When faced with so little, you need that time to unwind and share quality moments with your children. And of course the budget is always limited.
You don't want to spend half your time and savings travelling some place far away. Its just not practical or attractive.
The is often true of the people you know, your family and especially your friends. Most of them will fit into the same bracket as you in the "prescription plan" for life. They're about the same age as you, and the same is true of their children and your children. There's probably not a significant difference in household income. You tend to think and maybe act the same, or at least play down and look beyond such differences.
So you tend to take your vacation at the same places.
At the same time.
Year after year.
From Philadelphians, the Jersey Shore extends south from Atlantic City to Cape May, at the end of the peninsula.
Each beach community targets and serves specific groups of people.
Atlantic City looks long past its prime. Weekend visitors come for gambling and a bar scene. Run down houses and a crime rate. The days which inspired the street names for Monopoly to be taken from here are gone.
Ocean City, Sea Isle, and similar for family-safe fun with each to suit different social and economic situations.
Avalon and Stone Harbor for the rich and the preppy college crowd.
Cape May for old money and the retired.
Wildwood now perhaps a bit more low-brow, a step down from earlier days. Frequented by late high-schoolers who were too young to get into the bars but won't stop trying. And of course for-the-night visits by families from the neighboring beaches out for a night on the Boardwalk.
Vacation in America is often a social experience.
Beaches are a place by the sea to see and be seen.
Travel is to the familiar, one knows what the expect and how much to pay.
From the perspective of the child, this is hardly a problem. You know where you want to go for vacation. You can't wait to go on your favorite ride, or to the water slides. Maybe you'll see that kid again you met last year. They were cool.
You love going down the shore.
That bike will still be waiting in the shed. Maybe you'll go further on it this year. Maybe all the way to the outdoor mall.
I wonder what new games have come out. I bet this year I'll win enough tokens for more than a back scratcher.
Better get some new books for the car ride. Two hours in a car is such a long time!
I hope I find some good sea shells. Some sandollars if I'm lucky.
Maybe they'll let us get hermit crabs again.
I think I'll ride a upside-down ride this year. I think I'm ready and I must be tall enough by now.
I call the outside shower first.
However, the end result means travel abroad becomes rare.
Its too hard, or too expensive. They might not speak English. You're not assured the same level of comfort you desire and have come to expect.
You don't want hard. You want easy. You want to relax. You want to forget you have to be back at work next week, without a break for another year. You want your kids to remember this trip. You want to remember your kids at this age.
So you never go.
The problem with America's centricity and overly domestic focus is contributed to by lack of vacation days because for the vast majority of Americans their ability to travel becomes limited and they end up with insufficient connection to the rest of the world.
When they hear about an event or catastrophe happening in some foreign country there's no relation. There's nothing personal about it.
They've never been there. No one they know has ever been there. No one those people know have either. And none of that mob ever likely will.
Politics are not something they want to think about, at the end of a long day, as they put on the evening news and settle back onto the couch. They've finished with work, took care of dinner, took care of the kids, took care of what they needed to do for one more day.
The president wants to declare war somewhere?
In Iraq again?
What's that he just said about 9/11?
We didn't finish down there the last time anyway.
We already knew Saddam Hussein is a bad guy, why's he still in charge anyway?
More commercials already.
Well, just three more days of this and its the weekend.
I'll have to mow the lawn after Little League in the morning, and maybe I should lay down fresh mulch this year.
Then nine more weeks and its vacation.
We'll get the same place in Ocean City hopefully. I don't want to have to search around and that one was pretty cheap for being so close to the water. Just three blocks.
Better start saving for a night on the Wildwood Boardwalk.
There's more to it than that of course, and the way America now looks at the world (and is looked at by the rest of the world) is finally starting to change. The way we get our news and communicate continue to evolve.
One might like to think we've even learned a few lessons.
But if we start to slip again, now you too know the solution.
Don't be afraid to join the movement.
We all need more vacation days.